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William Irwin Ph.D.

Inception Wins Plato’s Academy Award

Hollywood just doesn't appreciate philosophy.

Inception has been nominated in eight Oscar categories, including best picture. Unfortunately, it won't win. The Hollywood crowd just doesn't appreciate philosophy. But, if they gave an Oscar for philosophical depth, call it "Plato's Academy Award," Inception would take home the statue. (It would look like Rodin's The Thinker.) In fact, there's so much philosophical fodder in the film that we're working on a new book, Inception and Philosophy.

Here's a taste:

Inception is about dreams and deceptions. Dominic Cobb is an extraction agent, someone who can steal your ideas. But he is hired by a multi-millionaire to perform inception--to plant an idea in someone's mind, without them knowing. To accomplish this, Cobb (and his team) use something called "shared dreaming." How the technology works is not explained, but what they accomplish is this: One person begins to dream, and others share that dream with them--walking around in the dream as if it were the real world.

At one point in the film, while Cobb and his team are looking for a sedative strong enough to house dreams inside dreams, they come across a group of old men who gather every day in a basement to share dreams. They sleep for four hours, but since time moves faster in dreams, each dream they share is equivalent to forty waking hours. To them, waking life is a secondary slumber from which "they come to be woken...the dream has become their reality."

Cobb himself has done this in the past. He and his wife, Mal, when experimenting with shared dreaming and heavy sedatives, once descended into "Limbo" (unconstructed dream space that is completely malleable to suggestion, and lasts an undefined amount of time). They lived an entire lifetime, growing old together, in a world that they could fashion into anything they wanted by sheer will. For Cobb, it was unfulfilling because he knew it wasn't real. Mal, however, purposely forgot that it wasn't real--and was perfectly happy. To break out of limbo, Cobb had to not only convince Mal that their world wasn't real, but that they had to commit suicide to wake up from it.

Not only does Inception have a cinematic forerunner in The Matrix, it has a philosophical forerunner too. René Descartes, in 1639, worried that all of reality might be a dream. This kind of scenario has fascinated philosophers. In 1974, the philosopher Robert Nozick gave us an updated version of Descartes' nightmare with "The Experience Machine." Nozick imagined a kind of virtual reality machine programmed to give us years of happy, pleasurable, and seemingly real experiences. Nozick asked, would you choose the machine--a life that is extremely pleasurable, but fake and full of ignorance--over a life in the real world?

In Inception, we have clear examples of people who would choose the experience machine--both Mal, and the group of basement dreamers. What would you choose? Initially, many people can't resist the temptation of a "life" full of pleasure. But there is good reason to think this is a mistake.

Nozick and Descartes were not the first philosophers to imagine such scenarios: In the Republic (ca. 380 B.C.E), Plato gives us the allegory of the cave. Imagine a group of prisoners, forced to watch shadows on the wall of a cave since birth. The shadows are all they have ever known; they think the shadows are the highest reality and are perfectly happy living a life of "shadow games." But when one of the prisoners breaks loose and learns about the real world outside the cave he looks back at his former life and pities those still stuck in it. (In fact, he returns to teach them about the true nature of reality. Unfortunately, they reject this and try to kill him.) Plato's message is that there is something intrinsically valuable about knowledge--about knowing the way the world really is. And that makes knowledge preferable to blissful ignorance, even when the truth is uncomfortable. (Another point: Giving up comfortable familiar belief is just too hard for some people.)

So we should not choose Nozick's experience machine and Mal should not choose Limbo. Even if we can, like Mal, somehow forget that we are being fooled, we still are being fooled; and, from an objective standpoint, that is still pitiful. Even the shared dreamers, who may or may not know that their dreams are not real, prefer pretend pleasure over a real life. Cobb had it right: fake realities are intolerable, we should prefer reality.

This might all seem irrelevant. When are you going to have a chance to plug yourself into an experience machine? But the thing is: People create pretend worlds on a smaller scale all the time. When presented with the reasons they are wrong, people ignore the evidence continuing to believe what they want to believe: in the pretend realities that make them happy. Religious beliefs, political beliefs, beliefs about the quality of their relationships, beliefs about their own intelligence. Only when we realize how important knowledge is, can we free ourselves from such self-deception.

Of course, there is a lot more to say about Inception. Everyone wonders: Did the top fall at the end? Here's a hint: It doesn't matter. Even if the top falls, it doesn't tell Cobb, or us, if he is dreaming. Why? You'll have to check out the book.

But if you have suggestions for other topics concerning the movie or if you have other philosophical topics in pop culture that you would like to read about, just let us know.

Copyright David Kyle Johnson and William Irwin

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